Djrum: In Conversation

There’s something pointedly evocative about the weather as I sit down to call Felix Manuel. The slow rolling morning mist recalls the earnest sublimity of the Romantics, even as its peeling off council house roofs rather than green pastures. It’s the kind of mood Manuel’s own music as Djrum delivers with a workmanlike consistency — small moments of rapture that are flecked with inner city melancholy.

It’s been roughly six months since Manuel’s last record, Portrait with Firewood was released, an album which doubled down on his emotive tendencies whilst also pushing off down new creative furrows. The samples that had formed a cornerstone of his music since 2010’s dubstep odyssey ‘St. Martins’ were discarded, replaced with his own poignant piano playing. Manuel’s music has always felt idiosyncratic, but his latest release grounded itself in self-expression.

Speaking to Manuel, you wouldn’t immediately guess that he’d produced such a mournful well of music. He’s funny, quick to self-deprecate, and eager to divulge his approach in the studio. At times he answers tangential questions before I’ve even had a chance to follow-through, though it’s always in service of a genial honesty. By his own admission he’s rambling, but it’s never self-indulgent. It’s the process of someone you feel is always challenging their own worldview in order to disrupt and improve on their creative method.

The word I’ve always most often seen associated with your music is “cinematic”, which speaks, in part, to the emotional arc your tracks go through. How conscious of the listener’s emotional journey are you when you’re piecing together a song?

Well that’s an interesting question… in some ways very much aware, and in other ways purposefully not because I’m focusing more on myself than the listener. I do think about that, and I do think about the atmosphere that I’m creating. I’m thinking about their journey, but I do that by focusing on how I reflect on it.

In a way I can’t be sure how people are going to find it themselves, and I’m always very conscious of leaving things a little bit open to interpretation. So for example when I sample film dialogue, I generally try and keep that dialogue vague. I’m very aware that by putting words onto an otherwise instrumental tune, you’re putting some specific meaning into it. Before when it was completely instrumental, it was still quite ambiguous.

There’s a mood to each track sure, but you don’t necessarily know that it’s about love, or about grieving or any specific emotion, and you can have your own interpretation of it. As soon as you put words in there you do lead people a bit, so I’m very aware of not leading them too much. I don’t think I necessarily always get that balance right, but that’s the thought process.

You just mentioned your incorporation of film dialogue, which is the other major aspect of cinema found in your music. Do you try and divorce those vocal samples from their context or do you think each sample retains the corresponding movie’s visual aesthetic?

Again in wanting to be vague I do try and pick films that are relatively obscure, because I don’t want people to be like “Oh yeah, that’s Harrison Ford” and picture his face. I’m using it for something new. I think with samples in general, whether it’s dialogue in a film, or samples from another track I’m always trying to do something new with them, so I do want to take them into a new context and I do want to give them a new dimension. Changing the context and using that sample in a way that gives it a new life is important to me, for sure.

Who would you say your key influences were from the film industry? Is that a pathway you ever considered?

Oh yeah I’d love to be more involved in cinema, you know, I’d love to write a soundtrack or something like that. Hopefully that’s something that will happen when the time is right. In terms of influences it’s hard to pick one thing or one movie or one person, but there are certain techniques that have stuck with me.

This isn’t gonna answer your question very well, but I’ll say it anyway. There’s one thing in particular, which is kind of a breaking of the fourth wall, which always comes back to me. You have the soundtrack for a film, which the characters can’t hear — it’s layered on top, it’s not part of the action within the movie. But then sometimes the characters are listening to music and it does inhabit the world of the movie, and so you get these two levels.

When we’re watching the film as an audience we’re like gods. That’s where the soundtrack exists: in that godly audience realm. But sometimes in a movie those two worlds meet, and I find the moment where the soundtrack becomes part of the world of the movie or vice versa a really influential thing for me.

Beyond film there are plenty of examples of narrative journeys manifesting in music: jazz, hip-hop, post-rock. What were some essential records that shaped your understanding of storytelling and tone?

Yes! I love that, I love that because there are some very key tracks for me — I’m gonna tell you three. One is a Quasimoto tune, from The Unseen. He has quite a few tunes that do this but I’m thinking of ‘Return of the Loop Digga’. He’s talking about record shopping and smoking weed, and for me that’s welcome because I love doing that. It’s only three minutes long but it goes through so many different loops — he has a little conversation with the record shop owner, and it’s just this whole journey.

Then there’s a track on Grinning Cat by Susumu Yokota called ‘Fearful Dream’. It says it right in the title… it’s this kind of dreamlike wander from one idea to another. It has these echoes at the beginning, and you feel like you’re falling into this world, and then really abruptly a new idea comes in — out of rhythm and out of time — and takes over. Again, like the Quasimoto one it’s pretty short, but again it just takes you on this journey.

Third is Congo Natty. He has a bunch of tunes that do this, and the kind of musical approach he has where he takes tracks from one thing to the next to the next comes from breakbeat hardcore. Old hardcore tunes tonally move from one bar to the next, I think basically because of the way they were made technically with sampled loops.

You roll the beat along, and you have one melodic loop going, and you just shift from that loop to the next. Technically that’s as advanced as they get — the sound doesn’t evolve, it just shifts. They cram loads of ideas in and just cycle through them. In old school hardcore it was done a little crudely, and then as it evolved into jungle, Congo Natty was one of the producers to do that in a… I don’t wanna say more advanced way, but in a less basic way.

There’s this one track, and I still don’t know the name of it. It’s on the B-side to ‘Bingy Man’, or rather it’s on my B-side to ‘Bingy Man’. You look on Discogs and there’s a bunch of different versions, and the white label I have doesn’t seem to be any of them. There’s an intro, and then it drops into the main bit of the tune, but they seem completely unrelated, and then a breakdown which again seems unrelated to the first section, which is relatively typical for Congo Natty. In a way it’s a poor example because I can’t tell you what it is – it’s just one of a number of mystical Congo Natty tunes that came out on a white label. I’m just a huge Congo Natty fan, huge huge.

We talked about samples earlier, but your album last year, Portrait with Firewood, was characterised by a shift away from sampling to a focus on your own meditative piano playing. What premised this change?

A few things. I knew I wanted to change mainly. I’d bought an upright acoustic piano a couple of years before, but I’ve been playing the piano since I was a kid. We had one in the house when I was growing up, so from as early as I can remember I played around with it, but I haven’t lived with one for a while.

I was taught in jazz method, not in classical, so I don’t sight read like classical musicians do, I only really improvise. So as I started to regain confidence in my playing I started thinking about how I could incorporate it into my production, and that process took a little while.

A revelation I had early on in my production career was that it’s important to let all your influences permeate what you do, and that’s the only way to be original and really be yourself. No-one else out there has the exact same set of influences as you, so you need to voice that. Thinking about that it became a no brainer — I had to let my piano playing come into my production.

How does the process of playing an upright piano differ from playing a keyboard or programmed piano for you?

Oh massively, massively. On some of my previous releases you hear programmed piano playing. For example, I did an EP called Forgetting and the piano on there is midi programmed, it’s not me playing it’s just dots on a screen. What happens there is I’m in the tune already, I have some melodic elements and I want to add some piano on top, so it makes sense that I’ll just start bashing around in midi. The track comes first and the piano comes after.

So I tried to jam along to a backing track on the upright and it didn’t feel right, I didn’t feel comfortable. I kind of realised that what I do best with piano is just sit down and improvise. So I recorded that and then used that the way I use samples; I’d take this long improvisation and then cut bits out of it. That’s when Portrait with Firewood actually started working.

I’ve never enjoyed sitting at an electric keyboard the way I do with an acoustic piano. There’s just some sort of joy to even just pressing one note that I just don’t get from an electric piano. It doesn’t feel the same… it doesn’t respond to your touch in such a sensitive way, and that’s what’s so incredible about an upright piano. It just responds so delicately to every nuance.

There’s also the fact that all the vocals on the record are done by guest vocalist Lola Empire, rather than being sampled. How did that collaboration come about?

I just found her on Soundcloud. I was just browsing around, clicking on one thing to the next to the next and ended up on her page. I really really liked her and noticed she was unsigned and just felt like I’d uncovered something. It’s exciting to feel like you’ve found someone for yourself.

So yeah, I contacted her said “I like your stuff, do you wanna work together?” and she was up for it. Eventually we met up — actually we only ever met once! All of the musical collaboration was done over the internet. We’d chat on Facebook, not even voice chatting, just sending messages back and forth about musical influences.

I sent her some stems, just a simple piano backing track, and since she improvises in a similar way she recorded a bunch of different bits with no real song structure. They were essentially samples, which really suited me because it was how I was working with my piano playing. She recorded all her vocals on her phone, and that’s what we used on the album. I’m really pleased with how that worked out.

Like many of your post-dubstep peers you’ve rarely been tied to one sound. What do you think has led to such malleable genre boundaries within the modern electronic music sphere?

For me, I’ve always been impatient about listening to too much of one thing. I used to listen to the Solid Steel mixes back in the day, and that’s what got me into mixing. Back then they had kind of a hip-hop downtempo basis, but they’d still bring in so many different things.

I never really liked going out to a club that played one genre of music all night. I used to love going to DMZ back in the day for example, but I’d get sick by the end. I can’t hear dubstep all night, come on! Really any genre for too long and it just becomes boom, boom, boom by the end. It all mushes into one.

The first time I went out and heard techno — that wouldn’t have been at a club, that would’ve been at a squat — I just remember not being able to tell where one track ended and one track began. I didn’t hate it, but it didn’t capture my imagination. The first time I heard it I just thought wow, this is just one long track that lasts all night.

I think the more you listen to one genre, the more your ears get tuned into those subtle differences. You start thinking “Well they didn’t just play techno all night, they played lots of different types of techno”. I’ve heard people talk about certain RA mixes saying they’re really eclectic… and they’re just mixing techno with tech-house. And I’m not criticising that approach, it’s just microniche. If you’re deep in that world those tiny little differences become big to you, and that’s never happened to me because I can never listen to any one genre for too long.

As a big proponent of vinyl, do you think this genre-flipping mentality came from your crate digging?

I’ve always been doing that, always crate digging, always buying vinyl, even when I couldn’t afford it. I was a poor student back in the early ‘00s, and I went to Music Exchange in Notting Hill, because they had this big back room where it was 50p for 12-inches and £1 for LPs. You just had to leaf through all the crap — I’d take whatever I could find, regardless of genre.

There was another shop, Haggle Records in Islington — that was a really great record shop. They had a pile — and when I say pile, I mean literally a mound — of 7-inches, and that was 4 for a £1. Some of them didn’t have sleeves, it was just a mountain. I’d go and spend the whole day there, hours and hours just trying to find what I could. I’d spend a few pounds and walk out with a stack, which to me was perfect. That kind of crate digging where it’s all about the time, and the risk taking: you get what you find, it’s not up to you.

Nowadays with websites like Discogs you pick a tune you want, and you find it. That’s that. It’s a different kind of crate digging, not more or less valid, but it doesn’t necessarily force you to think outside of the box. It doesn’t force you to buy a record you wouldn’t have otherwise. The gamble and the randomness when you’re in a shop with a fiver and you’ve gotta get lunch with it too, that’s when you’re forced to be eclectic.

Moving forwards then, do you have any projects on the horizon?

Since I finished the album, I took a bit of a break, and then I worked on a few remix projects. The next few things you’ll see from me are those, but they’ve not been announced yet. Keep an eye out.

Now I’m back in the studio with the next album in mind — whether it becomes an album, or an EP I’m not sure…I guess what I’m saying is I’m working on the next project. That’s underway now. I’m also working on a live version of Portrait with Firewood, and I’m gonna premiere that in the summer. I can’t really announce anything yet — but it’s gonna happen!

I see that you’re playing at Wigflex Festival in Nottingham on the same stage as Slimzee. Do you have your own history with grime music?

I got into garage when I moved into London in 2002, which was a really interesting time for grime obviously. Friends would come round with garage records to have a mix, and then there would be certain tracks that were more bass driven and we would refer to those as grimy. It was all at a very similar time.

I was listening to grime a lot early on alongside garage, but I guess when that mutated into dubstep I kind of went down that path and left grime behind. I’ve never really followed it intently but I’ve always loved it.

One last question, a question I know has plagued you since very early in your career. Do people still ask you how to pronounce your name?

Yep! Yep yep yep…it’s usually the first question people ask so big ups for doing it that way round. Maybe you can blaze the trail on that front…But to answer your question, yes people do. I still like the name, but I feel that it’s a distraction that people struggle with it so much. For that reason I’ve kind of gone off it — it wasn’t supposed to be a big deal!

I saw that it’s still formatted as DJ Rum on Discogs.

Yeah! I tried to change that, but you don’t seem to be able to. You can have aliases but you can’t set which one is the master alias. It seems to be stuck, so I guess I’m stuck with it.

Catch Djrum at Wigflex Festival in Nottingham on May 5. 

Words: Blaise Radley 

Featured Image: Oliver Casper

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